Archive for the ‘March 2013’ Category

Day 231. Easter

In March 2013 on March 31, 2013 at 8:25 am


Easter is often a time for reflection.

Whether you are Christian or not, the opportunity to take a four-day break from the regular routine is priceless.

At the last minute, we canned our regular trip to a beachside town and instead have spent the last couple of days walking, park playing, eating, sorting and cooking.

Now it’s day three, and I’m hoping for a miracle in the form of a babysitter.

Happy Easter!

[image thanks to it’s all about colour on flickr]


Day 230. Expecting pectin

In March 2013 on March 30, 2013 at 9:36 pm

quince jelly

I was expecting pectin in yesterday’s brew of poached quinces.

Today’s adventures in the kitchen delivered on that front.

For the record, my trusty Harold McGee tells me pectins are long molecules found in the cells of fruit, and are especially prevalent in quinces. After chopping and cooking, the pectins are broken up and released into cooking liquids where they remain dissolved and barely discernable.

In my own kitchen, after the quinces were peeled and chopped, we poached for 7 hours in total, and then turned the oven off and left the quincey pan to cool slowly overnight.

What started as this:

quinces cooked 1

Looked four hours later like this:

quinces cooked 2

And 20 hours later like this:

quinces cooked 3

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that anthocyanins are the reason behind the colour change (see Day 197. Ripe for the Picking).

While the majority of the juices were scooped out and stored with the fruit for future eating, a small volume of liquid remained in the pan.

quince juice

Here’s where the pectins kicked in. With the application of some gentle heat, we soon generated a thick gooey liquid. The thickness comes about when pectin subunits find each other and are able to bond to create a gel-like material due to the presence of sugar, the right level of acidity and reduced water volume.

quince juice cooked

When we poured our quince gel into a glass jar, it cooled and solidified so successfully that we could invert the jar and not lose a drop.

quince jelly

Day 229. Pectin

In March 2013 on March 29, 2013 at 3:06 pm

quince core

I’m very excited that we harvested our first quinces of the season today.

We picked only a very small fraction of the bounty on the tree – it’s been a huge crop this year.

quince lots

The fruit are fuzzy green and yellow on the outside, and creamy on the inside with dark red seeds.

We’re currently poaching about 15 peeled, cored and chopped quinces in 2 litres of light sugar syrup with vanilla and lemon juice (a la Stephanie Alexander).

The peeling part was a dream come true compared to previous years, thanks to an ingenious machine gifted to me by a very kind sister and brother-in-law currently living in Paris.

quince peel

Although we removed the cores, we didn’t add them to our compost heap quite yet. Instead, they were bound up in muslin and added to the poaching mixture as a valuable source of pectin.

quince cores

The pectin will help transform our thin, runny sugar syrup into a thick, syrupy goo surrounding the cooked quinces. This process will take approximately 8 hours in a slow oven.

quinces cooking

But what is pectin, and how does it work? I’ll let you know tomorrow, and show some photos of the finished product. Well…products actually. Stay tuned.

Day 228. The matrix

In March 2013 on March 28, 2013 at 10:02 am


The matrix.

If you’re into sci-fi movies, this means Keanu Reeves, black capes and cyberspace.

If you’re Miranda Ween (winner of the I’m a Scientist. Get me out of here! Australia Disease Zone), matrix is part of working out how to stop potentially deadly bacterial infections.

Confused? Let me take it back a step.

In a biology sense, if cells could be considered as bricks, the mortar-like stuff which surrounds them and pads them out is called matrix (also referred to as extracellular – or ‘outside the cell’ – matrix). Although it’s not technically living tissue per se, matrix is really important. Here’s why:

  • Matrix keeps cells organised in the right structure so that bodily functions can happen normally
    eg it keeps your lung cells in a ‘lung shape’, so that transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide can occur when you breathe;
  • Matrix provides a support system for cells to divide and move in a normal way
    eg when eggs in the ovary mature and are released once a month during the menstrual cycle;
  • Matrix acts like a storage and release system for growth and repair factors
    eg when you cut your finger, the repair of skin cells happens with the support of the matrix around the damaged tissue.

In other words, matrix is pretty well essential to ensure that all tissues in your body are set up in the right way and maintain themselves to function normally even when injury occurs.

Enter bacteria. In some tissues, bacteria seem to have worked out how to convince matrix to let them move on in and set up shop. This is not good. Part of Miranda’s research is aimed at working out which bacteria-produced proteins give them this matrix-busting capacity.

As an interesting side-note, Miranda’s expertise in the area of matrix was actually developed working in a completely different field: ovarian cancer research. Her story is a great example of how knowledge of one key, central component of biology can offer you the capacity to move successfully into a completely different area of science.

[image thanks to stockerre on flickr]

Day 227. I’m a Scientist! And I love to eat out

In March 2013 on March 27, 2013 at 5:53 pm


A quick post today before I head out to dine with Adelaide-based participants and behind-the-scenes wranglers of I’m a Scientist. Get Me Out of Here! (Australia).

The March 2013 edition of this fast and furious online science engagement program has just wrapped, and it was a beauty.

Winners were:

Domination by women and Adelaide-based scientists!

I’m hoping to pin down Miranda and Jennifer for quick interviews to form the basis for tomorrow’s post.

[image thanks to ugod on flickr]

Day 226. Food. Or is it?

In March 2013 on March 26, 2013 at 1:33 pm


Is food about nutrition? Or is it about taste?

Most of us know that when we have a little Cheezel binge, we’re not likely to be taking in any vital nutrients.

But did you ever stop and think about how Cheezels and other so-called ‘extruded’ snacks are made?

Essentially it’s as simple as 1, 2, 3 :

  1. A machine combines basic starchy ingredients;
  2. The required shapes are extruded – or pushed out – using a template system; and
  3. The shapes are dried – in this form they are completely tasteless and bland.

Obviously this is not the end of the line – how does that Cheezle flavour we all know and love come about?

Basically it boils down to covering the tasteless shapes in a layer of powdered palatants – otherwise known as stuff which tastes good.

That’s what that yellow/orange coating is. Stuff which tastes good.

This is also the method used to make most dried dog and cat food.

Fortunately, most cats and dogs don’t dig the full-on flavours that humans like. Otherwise, we could just bring out the schmackos with the beer and footy.

[image thanks to littleredd on flickr]

Day 225. Totes loving social media, LOL

In March 2013 on March 25, 2013 at 9:29 pm


Has social media changed the way you write? Or even the way you read and retain information?

If you’re a prolific user like me, the answers are probably YES and OMG, YES.

Simon Kuper at the Financial Times published a great article this week How social media improved writing.

He suggests,

“texts, blogs, emails and Facebook posts are infecting other kinds of writing, and mostly for the good. They are making journalism, books and business communications more conversational.”

Furthermore, a recent academic publication Major Memory for Microblogs even suggests that information presented in a casual style of writing is more likely to remembered than that presented more formally, such as sentences from books or traditional media.

Writing my blog post a couple of days ago, I found myself using French -> English translation rather than French to English translation. I looked at the words, actually thought to myself

“I really should change that, it’s not proper”.

But I actually liked the sense of movement the arrow conveyed. So it stayed.

Damn convention! Language is for the people.

[image thanks to Enokson on flickr]

Day 224. Well? Do you?

In March 2013 on March 24, 2013 at 9:30 pm


Do you believe in dog?

Well? Do you?

I think you should. Here’s why:

Once upon a time (in July 2012, actually), canine scientists Julie Hecht and Mia Cobb met at a conference. United by a passion for science, communication and social media, they had a light bulb moment.

That moment turned into an idea – and the idea was Do You Believe in Dog (also available on Facebook).

Do You Believe in Dog is a conversational flow of back and forth posts,  in which Julie and Mia share their

“adventure as pen pals in the digital era, taking turns to blog on topics related to their own research, the work of their research groups and other random dog science themes.”

If you love dogs, have a taste for science, and enjoy the odd quote like this:

“I love that both dog urine and poo are totally appropriate topics for us to discuss in our conversations. All the other scientists are so jealous right now!”

then this blog is for you.

Join me, be a believer.

[image thanks to Katie@! on flickr]

Day 223. Mademoiselle Sophie

In March 2013 on March 24, 2013 at 10:05 am


Further to prior discussions on what boys and girls do, in my house we’ve stumbled across the most wonderful children’s book.

Entitled Sophie’s Misfortunes (part of the Fleurville Triology)it was written by a certain Countess de Segur way back in the 19th Century; we have the French -> English translation courtesy of a birthday present to my daughter recently.

Sophie is a young lady, probably aged around 8, and being raised in a well-off family in rural France;

“sometimes she’s good, but often she’s naughty, which gets her into all kinds of trouble”.

Best of all, Sophie displays all sorts of behavioural tendencies which you couldn’t describe as classically ‘girly’.

For one thing, Sophie has her own pocket knife. Which she wields with some abandon.

For example, when playing ‘house’ one day, her Nanny provided her with bread, almonds and lettuce leaves to make a salad. After chopping these, Sophie decided her salad needed some protein.

Enter Mama’s bowl full of pet fish.

“She went up to their bowl, fished them all out and…..spread them out on a board. But the fish were not happy to be out of the water and they wriggled and leapt about furiously. In an effort to keep them still, Sophie sprinkled some salt onto their back and onto their heads and tails. Now that certainly made them still. The poor little things were dead. When her plate was full, she took some more fish and started to slice them up. At the first touch of the knife, the poor creatures twisted and turned in desperation. But soon they were still too. They were all dead”.

Wow. No fairies, ponies, bunnies or butterflies here.

[image thanks to rockyeda on flickr]

Day 222. Hey boy. Hey girl.

In March 2013 on March 22, 2013 at 1:40 pm


Is it important to you that you know the gender of the person who writes the stuff you read?

Most of us wouldn’t realise the assumptions we make based on reading the byline of a newspaper or journal article, and associating that name with a female or male identity.

This is a topic which came up at the recent session at the ScienceOnline2013 conference, in which scicurious told a tale of how she deliberately avoided references to her gender when she first started blogging; she just wanted to write, and without attracting any of the assumptions – and perhaps trolling – which might result from overlaying ‘femaleness’ onto her identity.

Just a few days ago there was some sort of global eruption when the collator of the hugely popular I F*#king Love Science Facebook page incidentally revealed herself to be female.

As reported in a Guardian article, many responses told us we have a long way to go before we reach a level playing field for women and men in and reporting on science.

[image thanks to ralphbijker on flickr]